Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Conversation with KISS' Gene Simmons

A Conversation with KISS' Gene Simmons

As the fire-spitting front man for the rock band KISS, Gene Simmons has put on his kabuki make-up and donned his platform dragon boots for the past 35 years. But for Simmons, KISS is just, well, his night job. Born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel, Simmons came to America as an eight-year-old boy and says he has been living the American Dream ever since. Known for both his music and his business acumen, he's the force behind thousands of licensed KISS products and numerous ventures, including his discontinued magazine Gene Simmons' Tongue, Simmons Records, clothing line Moneybag, and the brand marketing firm Simmons Abramson Marketing, the outfit behind the "I Am Indy" Campaign. He's also continuing to keep his brand in the public spotlight: His reality TV show Gene Simmons Family Jewels is coming back for a fourth season on A&E, he has a new reality show called Jingles on tap, and in July he released his tome on prostitution, Ladies of the Night.

Simmons recently spoke with staff writer Stacy Perman about entrepreneurship, failure, and all things Gene Simmons. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Which do you consider yourself first, a rock star or an entrepreneur?

That's an interesting question and the simple answer is a bit of both. Nobody does just one thing. But the real difference between being an entrepreneur and everyone else in the world is the ability to monetize. I am an entrepreneur in the classic mold. No matter what I do—outside of sticking my tongue out—I tend to make money, and quite a bit in non-KISS stuff.

How did you understand so early that you could leverage KISS into other business ventures?

When the band was starting off, we noticed that T-shirts and non-music items were earning a substantial amount of money. KISS quickly became a multi-headed beast: rock band and rock 'n' roll brand—and the only one to have endured the ages and decades of fads and fashions. Today we have 3,000 licensed products, everything from condoms to caskets. We have you coming and going.

Where would you say got your business education?

The United States of America. The best school is the street, and most successful entrepreneurs did not go to Wharton. Both Google (GOOG) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) were created in a garage. The difference between those that become a Buffett success—and I don't mean Jimmy—have an innate inborn connection. Their snouts are close to the ground. If you look at the CEOs of some the most successful companies in the world like IKEA, they never fly first class. They always goes economy. Sam Walton of Wal-Mart (WMT) had a second-hand car and lived in the middle of nowhere.

So are you saying you don't fly first class?

I fly economy. I do often fly first class, but I don't travel with a posse, or bodyguard, or an assistant. I use other people's infrastructure. For instance, I am going to address the AARP convention in Washington, D.C. I will fly first class to New York on AARP's dime, get into a town car, stay not in a grand suite, but a nice hotel room. I don't pretend to be poor, but somewhere in the middle is O.K.

How do you identify a business opportunity?

I trust my gut. I have to have an emotional connection to what I am ultimately selling because it is emotion, whether you are selling religion, politics, even a breath mint. If you study Warren Buffett, he only invests in what he knows—and he knows what he doesn't know. Never throw money at what you don't know. Maybe I'm conservative that way.

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